The White Building – Introduction

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Stairwell in the White Building, Phnom PenhAfter the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia’s succeeding government was tasked, among many other pressing responsibilities, with repopulating the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. For the duration of the former  regime’s four years in power, they had entirely evacuated the country’s urban centers, sending the cities’ residents to live and work in agricultural slave camps in the countryside. Following the Vietnamese liberation, a mass migration ensued, as an entire nation wandered the country in search of their lost families and homes.


In Phnom Penh, with little legal documentation surviving the KR period, this endeavor quickly outgrew the logistical capacity of a newly installed government still recovering from war and genocide and operating without international support. Squatting ran rampant as people flooding in from the provinces searched for anywhere to call a home. As part of an attempt to bring order to the situation, and in a stroke of keen foresight to help rehabilitate the devastated Cambodian art and culture scene (artists were among the intellectuals persecuted by the Khmer Rouge), and with it revive a sense of Cambodian national pride and identity, the government designated a block of publicly owned apartments, formerly for civil servants, as artist flats; a place for dancers, painters, sculptors, writers, or other artists and artisans who survived the Khmer Rouge to live and work and create a community with one another. Thus were the historic circumstances which saw the creation of The White Building, a unique urban community whose dramatic history would come to be rivaled only by its even more unusual future.


white building residents, phnom penhIn the thirty or so years that have passed since then, Phnom Penh has changed drastically, and with it so has the character of the White Building. Artists originally living there have passed on their rooms to their children or sublet their spaces in order to retire elsewhere. Meanwhile, without government upkeep the building itself has fallen into a state of disrepair deplorable anywhere, but shocking when juxtaposed with the new, high-end hotel and condo construction going on all around it as a result of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat-fueled economic boom. In addition to its egregious physical decline, the walls of the White Building now house a large proportion of Phnom Penh’s prostitution and drug dealing – a fact for which it has drawn considerable attention from the international media and the local authorities (each for entirely different reasons, as shall be addressed in a later section).


Throughout all this, the building has maintained a community of its own; genocide survivors, families, social workers, local business people, university students and civil servants all call The White Building home. And recently, since the building’s continued existence has come under threat from real estate developers working in collusion with an avaricious and mercenary government, a number of Cambodia’s young generation of artists have begun renting spaces and building their studios there in an attempt to revitalize the building’s flagging artistic community.


brother and sister listen to music in the White Building, Phnom Penh

Three decades have seen the population of the building multiply from a few hundred to a few thousand. Hammocks and cots now line the hallways and stairwells. Lopsided timber and corrugated tin siding jut out from windows to form home-made extensions, as residents try to accommodate two or three generations of growing families in space built for one. With everything from butcher shops, sundry good stores and cafes to pharmacies, brothels, schools, and hair salons being run out of people’s homes; with neighbors split over issues of class, education, and regional identity but joined by a common history and cause; with local power conflicting with national authority; the White Building truly is a microcosm for Cambodia; for its history, for its problems, for its hopes, and – as its people chart their course through the labryinth of social change brought by Phnom Penh’s urbanization – for its future.